Bamboo in Permaculture with Robyn Francis

Robyn Francis in Buddha-belly bamboo clump

I love Bamboo; growing, eating, crafting, building, and listening to the sounds of creaking culms and rustling leaves in the wind. It provides me with microclimates, windbreaks, privacy screens, animal fodder, wildlife habitat, an endless supply of mulch, delicious tender eating shoots, an abundance of materials for the garden and building small structures, and sequesters the CO2 generated by 2 overseas work flights to Asia a year, or one flight to Europe or the Americas, to teach permaculture.

When I acquired Djanbung Gardens near Nimbin, northern NSW, in the early ‘90s, bamboo was going to be an important part of the overall design. I gleaned information and practical tips on the most useful varieties from several bamboo enthusiasts and growers including Hans Erkin of Earthcare Enterprises and Victor Cussak, author of ‘Bamboo World’, and took care where I placed them in the design. We held our first bamboo workshop at Djanbung with Hans and Victor in 1994 and started planting. Ten years later we held another bamboo workshop with Julianne Hartmann and Rob Swain, where I learned more of the art and tricks of building with bamboo. Since then we have conducted annual bamboo workshops during the harvest season.

‘Everything works both ways’ and bamboo is no exception, so we’ll look at some important precautions as well as the great potential for integrating this versatile, multi-functional plant in permaculture systems. Most of my bamboo I’m happy with where and how it’s growing, some things I regret with hindsight, and I’m also dealing with the legacy of unplanned plantings of unsuitable bamboo by others on the property.

What is bamboo?

As the world’s largest grass and fastest growing plant, bamboo has earned reputations ranging from severe animosity to zealous passion. The animosity has been largely driven by the invasive and rampant nature of running bamboo species, which hold no regard for property boundaries and have thwarted many creative strategies for containment. Running bamboos tend to be more temperate to sub-tropical species and usually shoot in spring.

There are many excellent clumping species of bamboo that won’t take over your (and your neighbours) yard. I generally recommend planting only clumping bamboos. Clumping bamboos range in size from the smaller 2-4m high ‘multiplex’ hedge bamboo species, through to giants that grow up to 40 meters high with culm diameters of 20cm. Clumping bamboos tend to be tropical and subtropical species. Some, like Bambusa oldhamii, can handle frosts down to -8 deg, whereas others are exceptionally frost sensitive. Clumping bamboos usually shoot with the onset of the wet season in summer.

The down sides of Bamboo

Bamboo is greedy. It has an insatiable appetite for water and nutrients, and it is also allelopathic, excreting compounds from its roots that inhibit the growth of many other plants. So, don’t plant bamboo close to your vegie garden or fruit trees. On the positive side, you won’t need to do much maintenance around bamboo as it suppresses weeds, but do take care where you plant it.

Bamboo burns exceptionally well, and the culms can explode in fire, so be mindful of bushfire risk. Don’t plant it too close to your home or where it could be a liability during a bushfire.

Bamboo is very difficult to remove. Running bamboos are almost impossible to get rid of once established, off and away. Clumping bamboos are very hard work to dig out and usually need to be removed with the help of an excavator, but even with machines it’s not a cheap or easy process.


Turning problems to solutions

Golden-goddess hedge bamboo provides multiple benefits for the chook yard
Golden-goddess hedge bamboo provides multiple benefits for the chook yard

The hungry nature of bamboo I’ve turned to advantage with a ‘Golden Goddess’ hedge bamboo windbreak along the southern fence of my chicken forage yard. In our high rainfall wet season the thirsty nature of bamboo keeps the ground from becoming a quagmire – important for chicken health. The chickens make their dust baths under the bamboo where the silica in the broken down bamboo leaves reduces problems with external parasites. The bamboo hedge provides protection from cold southerly winds. The canopy gives cooling shade in summer and makes it hard for birds of prey to attack the chooks. In winter it’s a suntrap and favourite sunning spot for our flock. It’s also grown into an impenetrable chook-proof living fence with a bonus endless source of materials for garden stakes.

The dense network of bamboo’s fibrous root system makes it an excellent soil stabiliser on steep slopes prone to erosion.


Selecting and siting suitable bamboos

Design is the art of relative placement, and bamboo can be placed advantageously or detrimentally to surrounding systems. The first question to address is what do you want it for in terms of yield. If you want a ready supply of garden stakes and trellising material, then a ‘multiplex’ hedge bamboo will do just fine. If you’re after materials for building and crafting there’s many species to choose from, depending on what space you have for growing, your climate, and what kind of construction or crafting materials you specifically require.

Small hedge bamboo clumps can grow to 3-4m wide
Small hedge bamboo clumps can grow to 3-4m wide

Don’t underestimate how big a clump of bamboo can get. I visited a farm that had planted an avenue of hedge bamboo along their driveway, less than 2 meters from the car tracks. Within a few years they could no longer use the drive as the clumps had already grown to over a meter wide at the base and the tops were splaying out another two meters or so with their canopy, effectively blocking vehicular access.

Do your research. Check not only the height and potential diameter of the clump at ground level, but also look at the overall growth habit and shape of the clump– is it upright or does it fan out at the canopy? What aerial space will it occupy?

The Weaver’s bamboo (Textilis gracilis) and B. oldhamii tend to be more upright in nature, whereas B. wamin (Giant Buddha’s Belly) and B. tulda culms tend to arch out and have a wider canopy, likewise with the hedge bamboos.


Design with harvest in mind.

B. oldhamii clumps are planted for harvest convenience by the driveway
B. oldhamii clumps are planted for harvest convenience by the driveway

Especially with large construction bamboo species, make sure you plant them where you can access them for harvest. Ensure you have space to fell the culms and drag them away without damaging other plants or nearby structures. Once the bamboo is felled, you need space to clean off the branches, somewhere to treat or cure and store it, and you also need to plan for piles of unusable bamboo branches, tops and damaged culms where they wont be a fire hazard.

Making biochar with bamboo waste materials
Making biochar with bamboo waste materials

Bamboo makes great firewood, but do split it first otherwise closed culms will explode in fire. Bamboo waste also makes exceptionally good biochar.

At Djanbung I’ve strategically planted all my larger construction bamboos where I have pathways, access tracks, car park or other open space for dropping and carrying out harvested culms. Our multi-functional marsupial meadow provides space for treating, trimming and preparing the culms for curing and storage.


Harvesting and managing bamboo.

Culms are best harvested at 3 or more years of age. I mark the individual culms of my most valued structural bamboos each year so I know their age for harvesting. The most effective way to manage bamboo clumps is through harvesting – young shoots for eating and mature culms for building and crafting. Most large clumping bamboos are susceptible to the powder borer beetle and require treatment for durability. You’ll find an in-depth article about bamboo harvesting and treatment HERE


Eating bamboo

Harvesting D. asper shoots for eating
Harvesting D. asper shoots for eating

Not all bamboo shoots are edible, some species contain significant amounts of taxiphyllin, a toxic cyanide. Even most ‘edible’ species of bamboo shoots will require boiling to leach out the bitter-tasting toxins. My favourite home-grown eating shoots come from the Giant rough bamboo, D. asper, and a single shoot can yield a kilo or more of delicious bamboo shoot. Bambusa oldhamii shoots are also edible but usually require several rounds of boiling to leach out the bitter toxins. The shoots emerge annually over a period of about a month, so we like to enjoy some fresh and preserve some for eating throughout the year. A simple pickle can be made by packing boiled (leached) and sliced bamboo shoots in a sterilised wide-mouthed jar and pour boiling brine over it. Make sure the bamboo is completely covered with the brine. The brine formula is 140gr coarse sea salt in 2.5L water. You can substitute some of the brine with soy sauce. Seal the jar and store in a dark cupboard with an even temperature, where it can keep for up to 2 years.


Getting creative with bamboo

There’s no end of creative things you can do with bamboo. What’s important is selecting the right kind of bamboo for the job. There are some very inspiring books with detailed instructions for building bamboo fences, screens, furniture, simple musical instruments and basic structures. We hold an annual bamboo workshop at Djanbung Gardens introducing basic tools and techniques for working with bamboo: cutting, splitting, tying, joinery and construction as well as clump management, harvesting and treatment.

Here are examples of bamboo projects at Djanbung Gardens:

There are some exceptionally creative bamboo architects creating inspiring structures such as at the Green School in Bali, and festival installations by Jaye Irving, permaculture architect. Most of us aspire to more modest functional creations where the inherent beauty of bamboo as a material creates it’s own unique magic and charm.

What I appreciate most about my bamboos is that they serve so many useful functions in my permaculture landscape as well as providing an endless supply of diverse yields and products.



Five favourite clumping Bamboo varieties at Djanbung

B. oldhamii clumps are planted for harvest convenience by the driveway
B. oldhamii clumps are planted for harvest convenience by the driveway

Bambusa Oldhamii also called giant timber bamboo. This I have found to be the most useful all-rounder for building structures as posts, beams and rafters, and also making furniture. The clump grows upright and yields long straight culms. The branching usually starts more than half way up the culm, which reduces the amount of time-consuming work de-branching. Not suitable for small yards, it grows 15-20m high with culms up to 10cm diameter. Frost tolerant down to -8o C

The swollen inter nodes of the giant "Buddhas Belly" bamboo
The swollen inter nodes of the giant “Buddhas Belly” bamboo

Bambusa vulgaris v. warmin, commonly known as Giant Buddha’s Belly bamboo. Forms a somewhat sprawling clump of straight and beautifully curvaceous culms with swollen internodes, I love the natural curves for creating arches. This is also my favourite for making useful containers for the kitchen. This clump definitely needs space. Culms grow up to 15m high and 8-10 cm diameter. Also suitable for pot culture in small gardens.

Weavers bamboo, Bambusa textilis var gracilis
Weavers bamboo, Bambusa textilis var gracilis

Bambusa textilis var gracilis Weavers bamboo a smaller bamboo, it grows to 8m high and has slender culms of 2-3cm diameter, traditionally split for weaving. The straight culms have thin walls, ideal for splitting as fine slats and for crafting. The grove diameter is 2-3m wide at the base.

Small hedge bamboo clumps can grow to 3-4m wide
Small hedge bamboo clumps can grow to 3-4m wide

Bambusa multiplex spp, Hedge bamboo. There are numerous varieties of multiplex bamboos e.g. Silverstripe, Golden Goddess, Alfonse karr, Fern-leaf. growing 3-5m high and most tolerate light-medium frosts. These are generally not so susceptible to insect/borer damage post-harvest. I use these extensively in the gardens for stakes and trellises. These can be grown in a larger urban garden and make great hedges or low windbreaks on rural properties. They can be clipped into a formal hedge if you’re so inclined or need to manage their height and spread. Also suited to growing in large pots.

Harvesting the massive culms of D. asper, the Giant Rough Bamboo
Harvesting the massive culms of D. asper, the Giant Rough Bamboo

Dendrocalamus asper also known as Giant Rough bamboo is most definitely only suitable for a larger property and copes with frosts to -4oC. This bamboo grows 20-30m high with culms 15-20cm diameter. Yields very sturdy pole timbers. This is my favourite eating bamboo and is grown commercially for shoots throughout SA Asia. The culms are used as heavy construction poles and in bridge-building, as well as for furniture and musical instruments.


Robyn Francis, well known permaculture pioneer and educator, is passionate about bamboo and has worked with bamboo specialists and enthusiasts over the past three decades as well as gleaning ideas from her permaculture work in the traditional bamboo cultures of Asia. Francis conducts an annual bamboo workshop, co-facilitates masterclass workshops with specialist bamboo builders, and offers an extended bamboo internship each spring at Djanbung Gardens.


An edited version of this article was originally published in PIP Magazine in 2015. This article contains additional photos.

All photos taken at Djanbung Gardens by Robyn Francis.  Feature image photo by Elli





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